Spring Recap: O-Line Looks For Answers
For an offensive unit that returns seven starters and appeared to be clicking on all cylinders at the end of the 2006 campaign, the Gamecock offense was a far cry this spring from where they hope to be in the fall. The most obvious area that must see improvement is the play of the offensive line. Despite having many more bodies to work with this spring, Coach John Hunt's group often appeared intimidated and overmatched against USC's more athletic defensive front. Returning starter Jamon Meredith would be the lone exception to that, as he is undoubtedly the Gamecocks leader at left tackle, but the other four spots along the line appear to be up for grabs heading into the summer.
The Gamecocks knew entering into the spring that they would have to replace three interior starters on the line after losing Chris White, Thomas Coleman, and Seth Edwards to graduation. However, the trio of Web Brown (Center), James Thompson (Right Guard), and Garrett Anderson (Left Guard), who received the majority of work with the first team interior line, are still very much a work in progress. Brown, a fifth year senior, is an intelligent player with a good work ethic and a hard nosed style of play, but he is still undersized with a generous weight listing at 6'4" and 291 pounds. After seeing time at offensive guard and back up center throughout his career, Brown is still adjusting to the responsibilities of being the starting center and anchoring the middle. His progress during the summer and into fall camp will play a key role in whether or not USC's offensive line can avoid a slow start for the third consecutive season.
Caption: Quarterback Blake Mitchell works behind the first team offensive line during a spring scrimmage.
A highly touted prospect coming out of high school in 2004, Thompson has not lived up to his All-American billing during his first three years at Carolina, but he is showing an improved work ethic heading into his senior season. Thompson had a mediocre spring and must continue to work on playing his assignments and improving his conditioning, as he will have to fight to keep his starting spot in the fall. Redshirt freshman Kevin Young was expected to challenge Thompson in the spring, but he was hampered with a shoulder injury that limited his reps. Thompson and Young will likely have a heated battle for the starting right guard spot once the fall arrives.
Rising sophomore Garrett Anderson, who started four games for the Gamecocks last season, has the feet and athleticism to be an All-SEC caliber lineman down the road, but he is still young and must continue to work hard to learn his assignments and mature physically. Coach Spurrier challenged Anderson, Hutch Eckerson, and Heath Batchelor following Saturday's spring game as three young linemen that need to have a good summer and grow up quickly in order to help the offensive line next season. Junior Matt Raysor worked behind Anderson at second team left guard during the spring, and the former defensive lineman showed signs of ability, but must continue to learn his assignments before being reliable in game action.
The move of Lemuel Jeanpierre from defensive tackle to offensive guard will certainly shake things up in the fall. The athletic 6'3", 295 redshirt sophomore is very coachable and is one of the hardest workers on the team. Spurrier went as far as to predict last week that "Lem" could win a starting job at one of the guard spots by the fall. The question that remains is whether he will play left or right guard. If Jeanpierre plays right guard, then he will challenge Thompson and Young for positioning on the two deep. However, if the coaches feel he is best suited for left guard, that could result in a restructuring of the line with the versatile Anderson moving to center. If Jeanpierre adjusts as well as expected, then he could be a fixture on the Gamecock offensive line for years to come.
Caption: Lemuel Jeanpierre is recognized during halftime of Saturday's game for winning the weight room effort award.
Returning starter at right tackle, Justin Sorenson, missed the first week of spring practice with a shoulder injury, but after returning, he never seemed to regain his 2006 late season form. The 6'7", 323 pound Sorenson surprised many by starting the final six games of last season and competed at a high level, but he seemed to struggle against USC's new, more athletic breed of defensive ends this spring. Sorenson lacks the feet and lateral quickness of most of his counterparts, but he is one of the strongest players on the team, and he takes pride in playing his assignments. If he can rediscover his form from last season and lock down the right side of the line, that would be a big boost to Carolina's offensive line.
Redshirt junior Gurminder Thind, who started last season as the first team left tackle before injuring his foot in week two against Georgia, returned this spring to try to win back his starting spot. The 6'4", 293 pound Thind started the spring with a bang by grading out at over 95% in one of the early scrimmages, but he lacked the consistency and mean streak that the coaches would have liked to see for the remainder of the spring. Much like Sorenson, Thind struggled manning the edge against the likes of Eric Norwood, Travian Robertson, Jordin Lindsey, and Jonathan Williams, which brought about speculation of a possible move to guard. Thind, who is one of the most physically mature linemen on the team, said earlier in the spring that he would not be opposed to a move inside if it was for the good of the team. If Thind can develop a mean streak to match his physical ability, then he has the potential to be an impact player for the Gamecocks in 2007.
Eckerson and Batchelor are two promising young offensive tackles who showed progress this spring, but like most young linemen, they still have a ways to go. Eckerson gained some valuable experience last year by starting five games in the first half of the season, but while the 6'6", 286 pound sophomore has the feet to play offensive tackle, he must continue to get stronger in order to compete at this level. Batchelor, who measures in at a solid 6'7" and 304 pounds, is further along physically, but doesn't have the benefit of game experience like Eckerson. With continued dedication in the weight room and more live reps in practice, both players will look to figure into the offensive tackle rotation next season.
Caption: Heath Batchelor battles defensive end Eric Norwood during the Garnet and Black Game.
January enrollee Ryan Broadhead worked at second team center for much of the spring, but the 6'5", 271 pound freshman has a long ways to go physically. Reports of him bulking up to 290+ pounds during his grayshirt period were accurate, but the 2006 signee quickly lost twenty pounds of that weight due to all the running in Mark Smith's strength and conditioning program. Junior Jeremy Burgess, who has had an injury plagued career, will compete with Broadhead to back up Brown at center, but neither appear ready to compete against SEC caliber competition.
Caption: Ryan Broadhead works on snapping the ball to walk-on quarterback Michael McQueeney.
Redshirt freshmen Seaver Brown and Pierre Andrews received valuable reps this spring working mostly with the third team offense. The two young guards have further to go physically than the other young linemen, but they will likely benefit in the long run by not being called upon to play too early. With continued dedication in the weight room and on the practice field, their time will come down the road.
Overall, the Gamecocks have more options to work with on the offensive line than the past two seasons, but the fate of the line will rest with the players' dedication in the summer workouts and their ability to gel together early in fall camp. If Coach Hunt's crew can develop that much needed chemistry and compete at a higher level early next fall, then that will bode well for Carolina's chances of making some noise in the SEC-East in 2007.
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